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French football is dying as Europe searches for the next Pogba

The signing of Paul Pogba by Manchester United, finally announced after a protracted transfer saga this week, has been seen as a genuine re-shaping of the transfer market in Europe. Beyond the cost of the French international and how he fits in to United’s team, the ramifications of his move for football in France are also deserving of some consideration.

Pogba’s connections to France are somewhat tenuous aside from his role on the national team, having left the academy of Le Havre for Manchester in 2009 at age 16. That said, given the success of other players emerging from France in the recent past (Dimitri Payet, N’Golo Kante), how is the hunt for the next Pogba affecting football in the country as a whole?

While Pogba moved at a young age, and under controversial circumstances, his move to Manchester United will likely only serve to accelerate the current trends in player progression that have made Ligue 1 perhaps the most-scrutinized league in the world for those would-be scouts.

Already this summer, we have seen a host of players plucked from Ligue 2, the level of Le Havre at the time of Pogba’s departure, and for not inconsiderable sums. Lys Mousset is the most notable example, his 14 goals for Le Havre last season spurring a €6.5M move from Le Havre to Bournemouth.

But, he is far from the exception, as he merely underscores a worrying trend in French football, that of foreign clubs scouring the second division and the lower half of the table for the next big thing.

Some might argue that it is a somewhat specious argument to attach the word trend to the player movement out of France’s second division, given we are now 18 years on from Sebastien Frey’s €14M move from Cannes to Inter Milan.

But whereas Frey was the exception at the time, foreign clubs’ deep pockets are now the rule. In addition to Mousset, this summer has also seen Jean-Philippe Gbamin move from Lens to Mainz for €5M and Aissa Mandi move from relegated Reims to Real Betis for €4M.

Now, it is a given with the strict financial regulations in France that Ligue 2 sides will always be likely to have their heads turned by a solid offer for a young (or not-so-young) talent but their moves abroad are of a far greater threat to the quality of play in France than in the past.

Historically, players from Ligue 2 have merely moved into the first division. Players of recent vintage who have made this move and then gone on to bigger things include the likes of Roma’s Miralem Pjanic, (Lyon via Metz) Blaise Matuidi (Saint-Etienne via Troyes) and Atletico Madrid’s Kevin Gameiro (Lorient via Strasbourg).

And with moves like these, top quality players are only finding their level, spending a few years moving through the divisions in France but also in the process improving the level of play and the financial situation at their newfound clubs.

Gameiro is a prime example of this, scoring 17 goals and recording six assists for Les Merlus in 2009-10. The club finished seventh, in contention for a European place until the season’s end.

The Breton club had invested a decent amount of money in the player, some €3M, but between the team’s improved performance during his time at the Moustoir and the €11M fee earned from his sale to Paris Saint-Germain, all parties (Strasbourg, Lorient and the player) gained from the experience, even if his time in Paris was somewhat disappointing.

Admittedly, these types of moves are still happening, Wylian Cyprien’s move to Nice from Lens being just one from this summer, with Sofiane Boufal (Angers to Lille) and Paul Nardi (Nancy to Monaco) other recent examples.

However, regardless of position, moves abroad from Ligue 2 are becoming increasingly common (Diafra Sakho, Andy Delort, Yaya Sanogo, Abdul Camara, Joseph Mendes), and while the moneyed likes of PSG, Lyon and Monaco hardly suffer as a result, owing to their combined financial might, (and a strong academy in Lyon’s case) it is precisely clubs like the aforementioned Lorient that bear the brunt of these moves.

Success in Ligue 2 often translates fairly well into France’s top flight, especially for teams in the bottom half of the table.  With the second division boasting a host of young (and cheap, an important factor for almost any team in France) talent, it is easy enough for any clubs outside of Ligue 1’s “big three” to maintain a fairly high standard of play, which generally has the knock-on effect of producing a higher quality of team playing European football.

However, if the best young prospects are more frequently moving abroad, rather than the likes of Gameiro and Raphael Guerreiro, the team end up with players more along the lines of Romain Philippoteaux and Vincent Le Goff, players who, while serviceable, are unlikely to be sold on for any great amount of money.

With an increase in competition for Ligue 2’s best, the quest for the next Pogba is slowly but surely beginning to decrease the standard of play in France, owing to the lack of financial firepower in the top division. The fee paid for Le Havre’s Mousset, for example, exceeds any amount paid outside of the dealings of Monaco or PSG with one exception, Marseille’s purchase of Remy Cabella from Newcastle.

While it is hard to argue that Pogba is at fault for say, Lille’s elimination from the Europa League, the dramatically increased levels of competition for young talent in France make for a dire situation. Some clubs, such as Nice and Monaco, have turned to other countries (most notably Portugal) to fill the gaps, but in an era of increasing globalization, one has to feel that French clubs are only prolonging the inevitable.

Given the financial power of Paris Saint-Germain, (and Lyon and Monaco to a lesser extent) the best in Ligue 1 will always be able to compete for the best talent in France on some level. At this point, though, one has to wonder if France is due to become the next Holland.

While the national team has, Euro 2016 qualification aside, managed to perform fairly well, the days of PSV and Ajax regularly reaching the knockout rounds of European competition are over, the constant talent drain eventually surpassing the abilities of even the best academies to cope.

A second Champions’ League spot has been lost and the damage at this point seems irreparable.

The hope from these quarters is that the owners of France’s brightest young prospects, regardless of whether they are in Ligue 1 or 2, show a bit more gumption in holding on to them. In the world’s search for the next Pogba, what may be lost is the best of French football.

E.D.

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